Making a smoked chicken the Chinese way is easy! Marinate, steam, then smoke it in a wok with tea leaves, sugar and rice. My detailed recipe and tutorial video will guide you to cook it to perfection without fail.
A personal memory of smoked chicken
When I tried making smoked chicken the first time, I almost burst into tears having the subtle smokiness on my taste buds. It reminded me of the train trips I took as a kid with my parents. Very often they would buy a smoked chicken off the station platform. We’d make our hands greasy pulling it into pieces and enjoy it all through the journey (usually 20+ hours).
It means a lot to me to be able to somehow replicate Chinese smoked chicken in my English kitchen and the result is great! I love its tender, moist texture and its subtle flavour which doesn’t overpower the natural taste of the chicken. I strongly recommend you give it a try. It might become your newest favourite way to cook a whole chicken.
What equipment do you need?
For making Chinese smoked chicken, you don’t need to use a special smoker. Here is the list of equipment required:
- A large carbon steel (or cast iron) wok with a tall lid. Alternatively, you can use a stockpot that’s deep and wide enough to fit in a whole chicken. Please be aware that cookware with non-stick coating are NOT suitable for this recipe as they are not designed for very high temperatures.
- A steamer rack that fits into the wok (or the stockpot you’re using).
- A mortar & pestle or a spice grinder for making the dry rub (You may skip this step by using shop-bought five spice powder).
Woks and steam racks are commonly available in Chinese/Asian stores and on major online shopping platforms. If you’re keen to learn or sharpen your skills in Chinese cooking, I highly recommend you invest in these two items that will serve you for efficiently creating many authentic dishes.
Three cooking steps to make smoked chicken
Chinese smoked chicken is incredibly simple to cook. Here are the three steps to follow:
- Marinate the chicken with a homemade dry rub (or a mixture of salt and five-spice powder), scallions and ginger. Allow at least 4 hours to let the chicken absorb the flavour.
- Place the chicken on a steamer rack in a wok. Leave to steam for about 40 minutes until fully cooked. Then brush a thin layer of sauce for extra flavour.
- In an empty wok, heat the mixture of loose tea leaves, brown sugar and rice. When smoke appears, put the chicken onto a steamer rack set in the wok. Cover with a tight lid and leave to smoke for 8-10 minutes.
Use homemade dry rub to marinate the chicken
Prior to cooking, I like marinating the chicken with a dry rub. You could use a simple mixture made of salt and shop-bought five-spice powder (or just salt and pepper). However, I highly recommend you make your own freshly ground dry rub consisting of classic Chinese spices. Believe me! It makes a great difference in flavouring the chicken.
How to make the dry rub
Making the dry rub is simple. Toast the following ingredients in a pan (without oil) over low heat until fragrant (the salt will turn a little yellow at that point). Then grind it once cooled. You’ll need either a mortar & pestle or a spice grinder for the job.
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper. Remove the black seeds and stems if you find any (If you’re unfamiliar with this unique Chinese spice, check out my Complete Sichuan Pepper Guide).
- ½ star anise. You would find seeds in star anise too. Discard them before toasting.
- ½ teaspoon raw sesame seeds. If your sesame seeds are already toasted, add them when you start grinding.
- ¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
- 4 teaspoon salt
Sprinkle the dry rub all over the chicken then give a gentle rub using your hands for better absorption (wear kitchen gloves if you wish). Don’t forget to season the cavity too. Finally, stuff the cavity with scallions and ginger. Leave it to marinate in the fridge for 4 hours or longer.
How to use the remaining mix
With the quantity suggested in my recipe, you would only need about half of the dry rub (it varies a little depending on the size of the chicken). Save the rest for later use. When serving the smoked chicken, you can sprinkle some over the pieces for enhanced flavour. Or use it to cook other dishes, such as the classic Salt and Pepper Shrimp, Salt and Pepper Tofu and Salt and Pepper Squid.
For food hygiene reason, it’s very important not to contaminate the remaining dry rub with your hands (or gloves) which have touched the raw chicken. So my advice is to divide the dry rub into two separate bowls. Use one portion for the chicken and leave the rest untouched during the process.
Steam the chicken until fully cooked
After marination, set up a wok to steam the chicken.
- Place a steamer rack in the middle of the wok. Pour in water. Make sure it’s below the rack so won’t touch the chicken while boiling.
- Once the water starts to boil, put the chicken on the rack with the breast side facing upwards.
- Keep the heat at the medium-low level. Cover with a tall, wok lid. If you feel the lid isn’t tight enough, cover its rim with a piece of WET cloth/towel.
- For a 1.5kg/3.3lbs chicken, it takes 40 minutes to cook through. Don’t forget to check the water level halfway through to avoid it drying out. Top up with some hot water if necessary.
How to check the doneness
Please be aware that it takes a little longer to steam a chilled chicken than one at room temperature (I always take the marinated chicken out of the fridge 30 minutes before steaming). To check the doneness, insert a chopstick into the thickest part of the chicken (inner thigh area near the breast). If the juice coming out appears clear, it’s fully cooked. Alternatively, test with a kitchen thermometer, the thickest part should read over 165°F/75°C.
After steaming, you’ll see some water left in the wok. Don’t throw it away. Containing juice from the chicken, it can be used as a flavourful stock (e.g. for making Wonton Soup). Or, if it’s concentrated enough and turns into jelly once cooled, you can mix it into the filling for Soup Dumplings (XLB).
Brush some sauce over the chicken
Next step is to season and colour the cooked chicken with a thick sauce. Mix light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, oyster sauce and honey (1 teaspoon of each would be enough). Once the chicken has been cooled down for 5 minutes or so, evenly brush a thin layer of the mixture all over the chicken. Now you’re ready to start the final task: smoking.
Smoke the chicken with tea, sugar & rice
I assume this is the part that you’re the least familiar with. But don’t worry! It’s an easy-peasy task following these procedures:
- Lay a piece of aluminium foil in the wok (cleaned and dried). Mix 2 tablespoon of brown sugar (or white sugar), 1 tablespoon of loose tea leaves (any type) and 4 tablespoon of uncooked rice on top of the foil. Turn on the heat to medium-high.
- Once you see white smoke appearing, place in the steamer rack and the chicken. Cover with a lid immediately. Like I suggested in the steaming section, place a WET towel around the rim of the lid to stop the smoke escaping if necessary.
- Leave to smoke for 8-10 mins (The longer the smokier the taste will be). Don’t forget to set a timer and be attentive during this process.
- Once the time is up, uncover the lid. Make sure you turn on the extractor or take the wok outside to release the smoke. Just in case the smoke triggers your fire alarm.
Now you can carefully transfer the smoked chicken onto a chopping board or a serving plate. To give it a shinier look and some extra flavour, brush a thin layer of sesame oil over the skin. Before cutting or serving, leave the chicken to rest for 10 minutes.
How to serve the chicken
For serving, I usually like tearing the chicken into small pieces with my hands. All the leftover bones can be used to make a delicious stock for later use. You may also chop the chicken with a cleaver, just like how Chinese restaurants/takeaways serve it.
Tender, moist, flavourful with a hint of smokiness, Chinese smoked chicken tastes great on its own. However, if you want it more savoury, serve it with something extra. Apart from what I suggested earlier (to sprinkle some spiced salt that you made for marinating the chicken), here is a simple dipping sauce idea:
Put finely chopped scallions and minced ginger into a bowl. Pour hot oil over. Add light soy sauce and black rice vinegar. Mix well. Remember the leftover liquid after steaming that I talked about in the previous section? You can add some of it to the dipping sauce too!
Other easy & tasty chicken dishes on the blog
Looking for more tasty ways to cook chicken? Have a look at these recipes:
- Soy Sauce Chicken, a classic Cantonese dish with stunning colour and taste.
- Spicy Cumin Chicken Thighs. They are pan-fried with pungent spices. Super easy to make.
- One-pot Chicken Rice, a delicious all-in-one dish packed with umami flavour.
- Big Plate Chicken with Belt Noodles, a warming & hearty crowd-pleaser and lots of fun to make.
Chinese Smoked Chicken (熏鸡)
For the dry rub (see note 1)
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper, black seeds removed if any
- ½ star anise, brown seeds removed if any
- ½ teaspoon sesame seeds
- ¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
- 4 teaspoon salt
For the chicken
- 1 free-range chicken, ideally no bigger than 1.5kg/3.3lbs
- 1 stalk scallions, cut in halves
- 1 thumb-sized ginger, sliced
For the brushing sauce
For smoking the chicken
- 1 tablespoon loose tea leaves
- 2 tablespoon brown sugar, or white sugar
- 4 tablespoon raw rice
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
Make the dry rub
- Put star anise, Sichuan pepper, sesame seeds, fennel seeds and salt into a cold pan. Toast over low heat. Stir around from time to time.
- Once the colour of the salt slightly darkens, transfer everything to a mortar. Leave to cool then grind with a pestle (You may also use a spice grinder).
Marinate the chicken
- With kitchen paper, pat dry the chicken thoroughly. Sprinkle the dry rub all over the chicken, including the cavity. Use your hand to gently rub for better absorption (wear kitchen glove if you wish). N.B. You would need about half of the dry rub. Save the rest for sprinkling when serving or for seasoning other dishes (Please make sure the remaining dry rub has not been contaminated by your hands/gloves which have touched the chicken).
- Put the scallions and ginger inside the cavity. Leave to marinate for 4 hours or longer.
Steam the chicken
- Put a steamer rack in a carbon steel or cast iron wok (see note 2 for alternative cookware). Fill with water (lower than the rack). Once it starts to boil, place the chicken on top of the rack with the breast side facing upwards.
- Bring the water to a boil then turn down the heat to medium. Cover the wok with a lid (If the lid isn’t tight enough, place a WET towel/cloth around the rim). Leave to steam for 40-45 mins (See note 3 on how to check the doneness). N.B. After 25 mins of steaming, open the lid and check the water level to prevent drying out. Top up with hot water if necessary (see note 4).
Season the chicken
- Leave the chicken to cool for 5 mins or so. Mix light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, oyster sauce and honey until well combined. Brush it over the chicken.
Smoke the chicken
- Lay a piece of kitchen foil in the wok (cleaned and dried). Put brown sugar, tea leaves and rice on top. Mix well then cook over medium-high heat.
- As soon as you notice smoke, place in the steamer rack and chicken. Cover with the lid immediately (Cover the rim with a WET towel/cloth if the smoke leaks).
- Turn off the heat after 8-10 mins (the longer the smokier the taste is). When you uncover the wok, turn on the extractor or take the wok outside to release the smoke.
- Transfer the chicken to a chopping board/serving plate. Brush sesame oil all over. Rest for 10 mins then serve.
Serve the chicken
- Option 1: Tear the chicken into small pieces with hands (or chop it with a cleaver). Serve on its own or sprinkle some of the remaining dry rub over.